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Quek Yew Aun

Malaysian by birth, biologist by choice, Yew Aun meditates on various environmental, social and sporting issues. If not glued to a computer screen, he can be found trying to photograph sea slugs. Yew Aun can be contacted at quekyewaun@gmail.com.

MAY 19 ― The cancellation of the proposed Sukau bridge across the Kinabatangan river in Sabah has left me chuffed to bits. It seems like just yesterday when I first heard about the bridge’s proposed construction at a public mindset talk by Dr Benoit Goosen.

Then, he shared his concern about the impact of a bridge on the fragile Kinabatangan landscape. The bridge was supposed to connect the remote village of Sukau to surrounding towns, but that also meant cutting across the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary; a slice of pristine forest, home to a myriad of endangered wildlife including orangutans and Bornean pygmy elephants. 

You might wonder why this decision in a place I have never been to, or am directly involved in, excites me.

For one, it is a rare case where environmental campaigning successfully trumped potential socio-economic benefits. Aside from that, the fact that various stakeholders which included researchers, NGOs, corporate entities, even international personalities banded together for the same cause makes it an interesting case study.

More importantly, this success is a symbol of hope for conservation in a time where such good news are few and far between.

Progressive policies

However, given the directions that the Sabah state government has been taking with regard to protecting their natural resources, why should we be surprised?

Based on several landmark decisions in the past few months, it does seem as if Sabah has been leading the way in the environmental scene of Malaysia.

For example, the Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), off Kudat was launched last year making it the largest marine park in Malaysia, covering almost 900,000 hectares.

TMP will also be the first local marine park that is co-managed by state, local community and non-government actors.

Not only that, Sabah has declared three main marine parks: the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and TMP as shark sanctuaries whereby shark hunting is outlawed.

This is in light of the lucrative yet uncontrolled shark finning that takes place in the state.

Shark fins are harvested as an ingredient in sharks' fin soup; a popular dish served at Chinese weddings.

More recently, Sabah launched a state environmental policy to balance their economic and environmental priorities.

The 15-year plan is the first state-level environmental policy in Malaysia.

Other states obviously have a lot of ground to cover if they aspire to match the Land Below the Wind.

Personality power

In the backdrop of Sabah’s progressive environmental policies, lobbying for the cancellation of the Sukau bridge has revealed a disconcerting fact: that we must rely on international pressure to have any hope of a campaign success.

Indeed, with this case we saw personalities like Sir David Attenborough and Steve Backshall voicing out their concern to the international community.

The former called Borneo one of the most unique and biodiverse places on the planet, while the latter along with his wife kayaked 125 miles in a fundraiser aimed at buying land in the Lower Kinabatangan River.

These actions might not be the main reason for the cancellation but I argue that it contributed significantly to the state government’s eventual decision.

Then, does that mean that the local conservation community must write to a conservation icon, documentary presenter or heck, an Oscar nominee or Grammy award winner every time we want the government of the day to take action?

Many challenges ahead

Beneath the environmental successes that Sabah represents, there are still deep seated issues within the state.

It cannot be denied that sharks' fins are still being harvested in the waters of Sabah, sometimes even within the limits of a marine park! The recently surfaced picture of sharks' fins and tails being laid out in a Semporna jetty is evidence of this.

On the other hand, in terrestrial conservation, it baffles me how the state is still adamant about keeping their remaining three Sumatran rhinoceroses in Sabah. This is in hopes of either breeding them using in-vitro fertilisation or more ridiculously, resort to cloning.

At this critical juncture, it is obvious that the only way forward is to transfer them to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) where they can be paired with other rhinos for a better chance of breeding.

Sumatran rhinos have already been declared extinct in the wild for the entire Malaysia, what difference does it make to have them physically leave the country if that means that the species has a better chance of surviving this century?

Running on hope and optimism

In this line of work, I find that it is almost a requirement to have boundless hope and optimism. Indeed, these values allow one to savour the small wins and be convinced that things will get better.

But when hope and optimism fails, perhaps it might not be such a bad idea to pick up the phone and call Leonardo di Caprio.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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